393 The transparent connoisseur 6: Johnny One Work

There are nearly one-and-a-half times as many recorded Dutch painters of the seventeenth century by whom not a single work is known than masters with an identified oeuvre. And then there are those by whom we know only one really good painting. Where did their lost paintings go? Lots were thrown away, but others, Schwartz argues, are catalogued under well-known names. This subverts one of the basic assumptions of the connoisseur’s attribution.

When a connoisseur attributes a problem painting to a known artist, he or she does so in the conviction that “the artist […] at bottom remains the same, and […] something which cannot be lost reveals itself in his every expression” (Max J. Friedländer). One of the things that is wrong with this way of doing things is that the connoisseur can only work with his or her image of the look of known masters, while the historical record gives us the names of many more artists by whom no work is known.

In 1987 I put it this way:

The disappearance from sight of the entire oeuvres of many documented masters distorts the record, so that the connoisseur’s categories do not correspond to historical reality. It is as if the sorted contents of a number of containers were dumped on a heap, half the containers were broken, and one then tried to sort the same material into the remaining containers. It may be a valuable, perhaps necessary exercise, but one should not entertain any illusions concerning its truth to historical fact.

Since 1987 new evidence has bolstered the argument concerning disappeared oeuvres. Indexes of all the artists known to have worked in Rotterdam and The Hague in the seventeenth century document 904 painters, of whom paintings are known by only 370. That is a ratio of 1.44 masters without oeuvres to each one with. Colleagues with whom I have discussed this phenomenon say they are not bothered by it. They attribute it to a natural sifting process, in which works by less talented artists end up in the trash can as time goes by. One easy way to show how wrong this can be is to look at the neighboring category of oeuvres consisting of a single painting. Some of these are so good that they can only have been painted by an accomplished artist.

Pieter van Veen, The feeding of the freed citizens of Leiden on 3 October 1574, 1615
Oil on canvas, 197 x 307.5 cm, with the original frame, inscribed Wanneer den honger-noot met spijse werd verdreven/ Verandert druck in vreucht d’anstaende doot int leven./ Dit heeft dees stadt beprouft tot goodts eer haer geluck/ Gelijck gij siet ten deel in dit geschilderdert stuck.
Leiden, Museum De Lakenhal (443) [Museum image brightened in MS Word]

One spectacular example is a huge canvas that was donated by its maker to the city of Leiden in 1615, to be hung in the burgomasters’ chamber. The subject is the most famous event in the history of Leiden, and an inspiring story of the Dutch revolt against Spain. Leiden was surrounded by the Spaniards from October 1573 to March 1574, when the Spanish commander, the duke of Alva, withdrew to fight the rebels under William the Silent elsewhere. He returned in May and pursued a strangulating siege that, because the city had not prepared itself in the interim, cost thousands of Leiden people their lives. Only after William had the dikes around the city pierced did the Spaniards retreat. On the third of October 1574 the rebel troops, the Sea Beggars, floated into the city on the Vliet River, bringing bread and herring to the starving citizens.

The inscription on the original frame reads:

When hunger is relieved and sustenance arrives,
Dejection turns to joy, the death threat is survived.
This city, thanks to God, was saved that very way,
As shown at least in part, in paint, in this display.

The canvas was given by the city to the Lakenhal Museum in 1867, so that it has been a city treasure since it was made, available for delectation and study.

The artist who painted this epic work and could afford to donate it (well, he did receive in return a silver bowl  worth 160 guilders), was a city official – attorney to The Hague as well as Leiden – named Pieter van Veen (1563-1629). The iconic event depicted had a charged meaning to him. His father and mother were Catholics who in 1572, to get away from “evil folk and rebels,” made off with all but one of their children for the southern, Spanish Netherlands, where they remained until after the siege. So there was a bit of making up for things in Pieter’s donation.

Otto van Veen, The feeding of the freed citizens of Leiden on 3 October 1574, probably 1584, inscribed OVV f 1574 3 10
Oil on panel, 40 x 59.5 cm. Inscribed on the back Men was in groot verdriet/ want eten was er niet/ En ‘t volck van Honger schreijden/ Ten laest … God nedersiet/ En sond door dese R. Vliet/ Spijs, Brood en Dranck in Leijden.
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (SK-A-3911) [Museum image brightened in MS Word]

In doing so, he was repeating and even appropriating a gesture made by his older brother Otto van Veen (1556-1629), who became a famous and highly regarded artist. When he moved with his parents to the southern Netherlands, he went into training in Liège with the painter Dominicus Lampsonius. After that he traveled to and worked in Rome, Prague, Munich, Aachen, Liège and Cologne before returning for a visit to Leiden. There, in 1584 (in the very likely dating by Rudi Ekkart), he made a medium-sized painting on panel of the relief of Leiden, with a composition that served Pieter as his model 30 years later, with some interesting changes. The reverse is inscribed with another poem

The sorrow was extreme, for there was naught to eat. The starving people cried,
But finally God looked own, and sent, on River Vliet, food, bread and drink to Leiden.

These are the very words that in 1577 were carved onto the bridge over the Vliet in the background of his painting and later Pieter’s. There might be family contrition mixed in with commemoration of the event.

The point is this: On his deathbed, Pieter van Veen told his daughter Geertruid that he had made 400 paintings in his lifetime. The number has been doubted. In 1604, in his canonical Book of painting, Karel van Mander had called Pieter “a talent full of painterliness, who only makes things occasionally for the love of it, which inspire the best painters to great admiration and to say that it is to be regretted that he does not make that his special craft and exercise” (translation from Hessel Miedema’s edition). In a poem of 1633, Constantijn Huygens regretted that van Veen did not paint more of his “geleerd gesmeer” (learned daubing). But these expressions of regret do not necessarily contradict Pieter’s last words. Over the 40 years of his adulthood, 400 paintings are no more than ten a year.

Still, even if he were exaggerating, Pieter was clearly a serious artist. So was another brother, Gijsbert, whose portraits were copied in prints in his time, but by whom not a single painting is known today. That every one of their paintings except the one that has always belonged to the Leiden township has been thrown out in spring cleanings I cannot believe. What I do believe, and wish to impress on my connoisseur colleagues who ignore this effect, is that their creations have been taken up in the oeuvres of other artists. Those oeuvres – and I am convinced this applies to the large majority of recognized masters – are therefore not at all as personal as Friedländer thought. The premise on which problem paintings are attributed to known, individual masters with unique artistic identities is defective.

Otto van Veen, Self-portrait in the midst of his family, 1584, with a long Latin inscription on the left cartouche identifying the artist and dating the painting, and on the right cartouche the names of those portrayed
Oil on canvas, 176 x 250 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre (1911)

I cannot leave the van Veen brothers without showing the irresistible family portrait painted by Otto during his visit to Leiden in 1584. Not only for its own charm but also to illustrate another little borrowing by Pieter. Pieter was an inveterate sketcher, with one particular object to his name: 191 marginalia he drew in his copy of a 1602 edition of Michel de Montaigne’s Essais.

Pieter van Veen, Sketch in the margin of Michel de Montaigne, Essais, between 1602 and 1629
Published in Paris in 1602 by L’Angelier
London, British Library (C.28.g.7.)

This sketch illustrates a passage in which, as the British Library puts it: “Montaigne observes his cat, with whom he shared his library – and wonders who is really playing with whom.”

Pieter’s drawing of human-feline contact is delightfully reminiscent of a detail in Otto’s family portrait, with a little van Veen baby petting a cat.

© 2021 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 21 March 2021.

[23 March 2021: Thanks to a correction by Bart van Herk, I changed the ratio of painters without to painters with work from 2.44:1 to 1.44:1. I also reduced the claim in the heading from “more than twice as many” to “nearly one-and-a-half times as many.”]


Some sources:

R.E.O. (Rudi) Ekkart, Isaac Claesz. van Swanenburg, 1537-1614: Leids schilder en burgemeester, Zwolle (Waanders) 1998

Liesbeth van der Zeeuw, “Naamlijst van zeventiende-eeuwse Rotterdams schilders,” in exhib. cat. Rotterdamse meesters uit de Gouden Eeuw, ed. Nora Schadee, pp. 269-312, Rotterdam (Historisch Museum Rotterdam) and Zwolle (Waanders Uitgevers) 1994

Erik Löffler, “Illustrated index of painters active in The Hague between 1600-1700,” in Haagse schilders in de Gouden Eeuw: het Hoogsteder lexicon van alle schilders werkzaam in Den Haag 1600-1700, ed. Edwin Buijsen, pp. 283-364, The Hague (Kunsthandel Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder) and Zwolle (Waanders Uitgevers) 1998

N.J. Pabon, “Iets over Mr. Pieter van Veen en zijn familie,” Oud Holland 41 (1923-1924), pp. 241-249 (available on JStor)

Gary Schwartz, “Connoisseurship: the penalty of ahistoricism,” Artibus et Historiae 18 (1988), pp. 201-06, 215, 218, 221-22

The above is adapted from the draft of a book I am writing on an unjustly disputed self-portrait by Rembrandt. The reconstruction of the dramatic history of the painting is followed by a chapter on the premises of connoisseurship and how they can be improved. Because I am not sure I can include my entire section on the van Veens, I’m safeguarding part of it in this column.

On 7 April I will be giving an online lecture, in English, for the Dutch chapter of the Société Européenne de Culture. It is on the exhibition Rembrandt’s orient: west meets east in Dutch art of the seventeenth century, now on view in Museum Barberini, Potsdam. You can have yourself invited by sending a mail to the chair, Antje von Graevenitz: antjegraevenitz@hotmail.com


A precious new resource has just gone online: the catalogue of Dutch and Flemish paintings in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It is the work of decades by a dear friend, Ellinoor Bergvelt, and her dear departed husband Michiel Jonker.

Dulwich Picture Gallery I – Dulwich Picture Gallery I (rkdstudies.nl)
Dulwich Picture Gallery II – Dulwich Picture Gallery II (rkdstudies.nl)

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12 thoughts on “393 The transparent connoisseur 6: Johnny One Work”

  1. A fascinating story that deserves to be developed in a book (perhaps even more than the Rembrandt painting!) To my eye, the Pieter van Veen version has a painterly feel that far outstrips the example of the very same scene from his brother (like comparing, say, Raphael to Signorelli). Is it possible that the one was the workaday journeyman while the other was the brooding genius, drawing inspiration from the radical innovations of a neighbouring Rembrandt?

    1. Next time I see the paintings, Christopher, I will scrutinize them with extra attention to test your judgment. As they were seen at the time and ever since, Pieter was considered an amateur and Otto as complete a professional as ever lifted a brush – and a graver and a pen, since he wrote emblem texts as well as designing and engraving them. But that doesn’t mean that Pieter might have been a better artist. About Rembrandt, there is an interesting connection between Otto and him. Otto’s master was Isaac Claesz van Swanenburgh, the father and teacher of Rembrandt’s first master Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburgh. And Otto was the master of Peter Paul Rubens, making Rembrandt and Rubens studio cousins!

  2. Dear Gary,
    I am a regular reader of your column, but today I would like to tell you once again that I read one of your articles with particular pleasure. The painters without oeuvre have also been on my mind ever since I read your “Connoisseurship” article in “Artibus & Historiae” in 1988. And I’ve been trying to help forgotten artists get their work back ever since. I succeeded once with Jan Gillisz Wraghe, the forgotten master of Dortmund’s “Goldenes Wunder”, but that was unfortunately the exception. Nevertheless, and for this very reason, thank you for this new contribution!
    Best regards

    1. Dear cherished reader, colleague and friend Nils, That’s wonderful to hear – both that you took to heart the article from 1988 and that you have succeeded in doing justice to Jan Gillisz Wraghe. (Just admired the fabulous Goldenes Wunder on Google.) Actually, more links can be made between oeuvreless 15th and 16th century artists and existing works, thanks to the paper trail of commissions, repairs and so forth, than in the case of 17th century artists for whom that kind of documentation is rare. But if we all keep it up as conscientiously as you, maybe in a few centuries we’ll know who painted what.

  3. Fascinating and inspirational, Gary! One trend that I think underlies this problem is that “big names” always attract more prestige, media attention, and funding than lesser ones — hence, it is often easier and more advantageous to pursue research on well-known artists. We need to find a way to break this cycle! It also strikes me that paintings of specific events, like this one by Van Veen, do not get nearly as much attention is “generic” subjects. There is still so much to discover! Thanks for your endless curiosity — that, too, is inspirational.

    1. Indeed, Stephanie. I am approached far too often to validate a Rembrandt attribution, but no one has ever asked me for an expertise on works that may be or not be by one of the other masters on whom I am a recognized authority, Gerrit Pietersz van Zijl and Jan van Beecq.

      Your compliment does me much good, dear friend.

  4. Thank you for leading us to the brink of this abyss, Gary: what dizzying prospects! Are there black holes in the art-historical universe? Surely there are plenty of UFOs out there (Unidentified Framed Objects). On the other hand, doesn’t this state of affairs remind us that painting is a handicraft that can be learned and mastered. Yet whatever individuality comes to light might not be pronounced or developed enough to result in a clearly recognizable style. What is clearly recognizable as a style can of course be imitated. Connoisseurs would do well not to stray too far from the starship.

    1. There is a rather amazing passage in vol. I of A corpus of Rembrandt paintings that admits what you are saying:

      “Rembrandt’s brushwork must have been recognized through the ages as being one of the main features of his style, and therefore served as a point of focus for pupils as well as imitators, just as his highly individual handling of pen and brush in his drawings was copied with the utmost care.” This is given as a kind of excuse for not being able to distinguish a Rembrandt from an imitation, a pretty self-damning confession.

      Of course a lot of those people who are described in notarial documents as “kunstschilder” could have been galley slaves in painting factories, churning out one landscape sky after another, passing the canvases down the line to another “kunstschilder” who did the cattle. But there are enough instances, like that of Pieter and Gijsberg van Veen, that show oeuvreless masters to have been real artists.

      Thanks as always for your comment, Jean-Marie.

  5. Because connoisseurs include curators and dealers as well as historians, the lurking suspicion of desire for attention, and for money, always accompanies the term. It is therefore somewhat reassuring to learn that many experts believe in “a natural sifting process, in which works by less talented artists end up in the trash can as time goes by.” A most important contribution by historians to the general good is that their professional efforts can keep works out of the trash can – and the most direct and effective way to do that, is to attach those works to a name already validated as meriting attention and demand. Admittedly, this process may deprive painters of recognition (you have asked, and I still wonder, who painted all those really very good now-non-Rembrandts? which would together make a charming illustrated volume); for the dilettante amateur, however, any method of keeping good art visible has its own value. So thank you, for posting these paintings and their back stories. A very pleasing quarter hour. All best wishes.

    1. A good color book on now non-Rembrandts could indeed be enjoyable and instructive. But you can get black-and-whites of a few hundred of them by going to vols. I-V of A corpus of Rembrandt paintings, online, and leafing through the rejects.

      What I was after in this column was a judgment of attributions that equate an artistic personality with an historical personage. If we loosen that bond, there is I think a lot to be learned.

      Many thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  6. Dear Gary,

    Thank you very much. To paraphrase Edward Thomas, I, too, remember Artibus et Historiae. It’s an article which helped clarify my thinking at the time.

    When it comes to the dustbin of art, it certainly exists and mightily so, and of course it’s all about the economics. Cherchez l’argent! A print-collector friend, who specialises in all British prints, found a significant number of his trophies in the bins of Bond Street – quite literally. Sometimes they were used as backings in old frames (which he also collected). So briefly, if there is no easy commercial value to be had from a painting, drawing or print, it will probably get thrown away, by artists themselves (I know some who have weeded many years’ worth as they ran out of space; and one who lost almost all his first 20 years of production in a fire), or else by their heirs (many an art-inundated widow and her children, I am sure), their heirs’ heirs, or other, later owners. It is no surprise that more works tend to survive by artists whose names have always retained some value.

    The works of Pieter van Veen would almost certainly have fallen into the unfashionable and therefore practically worthless category of art at some stage (market-wise, I reckon they might still be cheaper today than a Droochsloot) between his death and our lifetimes. The situation for prints and drawings was generally much worse, and in The Light of Nature (1999) I outlined the clear and tragic loss of large numbers of landscape drawings, which suffered more than most for commercial and utilitarian reasons.

    But luckily there are still quite a few cases of artists’ oeuvres being found, reconstructed or significantly enlarged and published, often, as you intimate, out of works with erroneous former attributions to better known names (often hit on in the hope of increasing values). Connoiseurship is often exceedingly difficult – in fact often near-impossible and perhaps one of the most testing occupations available to earthlings – and its vagaries are clear. Pity the connoisseur! But it remains indispensable.

    A bit more on the topic is to be found on the ‘About’ page of http://www.rembrandtcatalogue.net, where I quote that great hero of Bach interpreters, the phenomenally brilliant Glenn Gould, who helps along the idea that academics generally stand in a symbiotic polarity with creative artists…

    In the longer run, connoisseurship is usually like a series of stepping stones, which for the most part lead to somewhere nearer the truth,

    Hope this isn’t too long, – I think it is…

    Warm greetings,


    1. Not at all too long, Martin, this is an inexhaustible discussion.

      It’s true that the rate of loss is astronomical. We all remember the shock when Ad van der Woude in 1987 came up with numbers of paintings made in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, which we thought we were being daring to estimate at one million, could have been more than ten million, of which perhaps a million are left. But the loss cannot have gone only along lines of quality (there are enough terrible paintings left, and a lot more copies than originals) or of style, which is always shifting. I’ve written elsewhere on the subject: http://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/ars-moriendi-the-mortality-of-art/.

      Having felt often over the past half century that I stand in symbiotic polarity to lots of colleagues, I am particularly grateful to be in constructive discussion with you.

      Yours ever,

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